Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649
Pedro Ohlsen, the son of Peter Ohlsen and the grandson of old Per Ohlsen, is not like either his father or his grandfather. They tended to their businesses like shrewd, practical men. Pedro, in contrast, is a dreamer. Scolded from morning to night by his father and his schoolfellows, he begins to seek out the poor children in the community for companions, among them a spritelike girl named Gunlaug, whom people call the fisher maiden.
When Peter dies, he leaves enough money for his widow and Pedro to live simply without working. Pedro devotes his time to flute playing. He and the fisher maiden separate after a quarrel; she thinks him a weakling and leaves the town. Nine years later, she returns with a child, Petra, a little girl who also becomes known as the fisher maiden.
One day Petra, who is as audacious as her mother was, steals apples from a tree belonging to Pedro. He catches her and identifies her as the child of his lost love. When Petra escapes, she tells her mother of the encounter. Gunlaug tells her never again to speak to Pedro.
Hans Odegaard, the pastor’s son, asks permission to teach Petra to read, and she learns rapidly under his guidance. A tragedy befalls Hans’s best friend, and, in his grief, Hans cannot be persuaded to take up his career. His indifference is a bitter thing for his father, the old pastor. Petra weeps when Hans leaves the village.
Young men come to woo Petra, among them Gunnar, the sailor, and a stranger who keeps his name from her and mystifies her with strange songs and tales. Finally, he gives her a gold chain and tells her his name is Yngve Vold. Unlike Gunnar, who is poor, Yngve owns his own ship. Both go suddenly to sea. When Yngve returns, he tells her that he intends to marry her. He is the richest man in the town, which frightens Petra, for she knows that many of the townspeople will not approve of the wealthy shipowner marrying the fisher maiden.
Gunnar, too, sends her a ring and a love letter. Before she can decide between her two suitors, however, Hans returns, and she realizes that he is the man she loves best. The next day, Hans beats Yngve with his cane for announcing his plan to marry Petra. Hans then tells Petra that his life is ruined, for she betrayed him. Gunnar returns, and he, too, beats Yngve. The whole town buzzes with the gossip that Petra has three men engaged to her, all at the same time. A mob goes to Gunlaug’s house and throws stones through Petra’s window. Gunlaug helps her daughter to escape from the town by dressing her as a sailor, and Pedro rows her out to a boat that will take her to Bergen, where she is unknown.
In Bergen, Petra is greatly humiliated. The theater attracts her, but because she is awkward and unlettered, no theater manager will hire her. At last, she leaves Bergen and makes her home among shepherds to the north. A pastor takes her in for a time, and when he learns that Petra knows Hans, he permits her to stay in his household. There, for the next three years, she studies the great plays under the pastor and his daughter Signe. Eventually, however, the pastor becomes suspicious of Petra and suspects that she is artfully concealing secret admirers. Suddenly, Hans arrives. Signe wrote him, gently explaining how much Petra suffers.
He forgives Petra for the harm she did him and encourages her to go on the stage. When Pedro dies, he leaves Petra enough money to begin her career. Drawing on her experience of suffering and her knowledge of life, Petra follows her greatest desire, happy at the same time to know that Signe is going to marry Hans.
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